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May 18th 1981 snowfall - rare meteorology among records!

Dr Phil Bagust: recollections of event.
Miles Peachfield: background comments.

On May 18th 1981 light snow fell on some high ground in the Mid North of South Australia. What makes it rare is that the snow fell on a day when the atmospheric conditions looked on the surface to be quite innocuous and a common weather situation for South Australia and simply incapable of putting snow on the ground even if it formed in the clouds above.

Looking at the surface weather map below, firstly a brief digression to the question of the day on the handwritten date on the map. It's difficult to read with certainly, but to my eye it's probably 18, and possibly 16 or 13. I did a search on Google to see if I could confirm 18th as the day, and was fortunate to find the following sentence in an unrelated article "It [May 1st 2014] was also the coldest May day since 1981, when it topped 11.3C on May 18." In the newspaper clipping below, the maximum for Adelaide on the day of the May 1981 snow is given as 11 degrees.

On the meteorological aspects of the map, we see a high pressure system centred south-west of Kangaroo Island, with the Mid-North in a light or perhaps moderate at times south-easterly wind. That's a typical surface chart for South Australia, and while it can be pretty cold in that kind of south-easterly particularly if there is stratus or stratocumulus cloud cover, I've never known it cold enough to snow. The magic ingredient here apparently was "... a small upper level disturbance centred over Yorke Peninsula" referred to in the Bureau of Meteorology's comments under the weather map below. I'm speculating that the "upper level disturbance" was a very cold air mass in the middle levels of the atmosphere, creating unstable conditions over the central districts including the Mid-North. This may have created snow falling from either a middle-level or lower-level cloud cover. A full cloud cover would have prevented solar heating of the air near the ground, and low humidity levels below the cloud would have led to evaporative cooling of the falling snowflakes.

On only eight other occasions have I encountered in the records I've researched so far (to March 21st 2017), South Australian snowfalls with similar levels of mystery as to their causes. I've listed these occasions with links to reports on them on this page.

I'm entirely indebted to Dr Phil Bagust for preserving newspaper clippings and memories of this 1981 snow event and posting about it on the Weatherzone forums 33 years later! Below I've copied Phil's forum post in full. The address of Phil's post as at 12th October 2016 is:

Re [thread]: Snow in South Australia #1269121 - 09/07/2014 09:52 AM

Ok, here's one we may not have noted before because its a May 1981 snowfall.

I actually remember this day well (that ages me!) because my mate at school had just got his car license and we pissed off to Yorkes. It was cloudy, still, and bitterly cold - in hindsight some upper level action going on - bit like that fall in 2003. Anyway, it was notable enough for me to clip out the map and article - I just found it 33 years later!

The following days in Adelaide was only 12.5 and 15 degrees so it was a cool snap!

Edited by paisley (09/07/2014 09:53 AM)

End of "May 1981 snowfall ... " page.

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